Katie Anger, a bright-eyed redhead from West Friendship, opened the door for cyber-bullying as a middle-schooler, when she installed the "Honesty Box" app on her Facebook page.
Some teens used the now-defunct Facebook feature to criticize her anonymously, tell her that no one liked her and say things they would never have said to her face.
"I felt like I almost had no one that would help me through it or be there for me," recalled Katie, 16, now a junior at Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville. "You just feel alone. I kept telling myself, I'll be out of middle school in no time and I'll get a fresh start."
Such attacks — among the nearly 4,700 cases of bullying, harassment and intimidation reported by Maryland schools in the last academic year — are common encounters for teens online. Cyber-bullying creates a vexing situation for parents and schools to police, because the harassment and intimidation is pervasive, easily kept out of a parent's view and inescapable to a generation tied to the Internet.
Unlike traditional schoolyard teasing, cyber-bullying can take place 24 hours a day, and often happens off school grounds, making it difficult for school officials to track. And because discipline is left to local school officials, it varies across Maryland and is considered too subjective to some parents and teachers.
The consequences of cyber-bullying resounded in Maryland after the Easter Sunday suicide of 15-year-old Grace McComas. Her parents said the sophomore at Glenelg High School in Howard County took her life after months of being victimized online.
"This incident underscores the 21st-century bully, equipped with a cell phone and a Facebook account, is a constant source of torment for our kids. There is no walking away. There is no hiding," said New Jersey state Sen. Barbara Buono, who was the lead sponsor on anti-bullying legislation there. The state's law, considered to be the most progressive in the country, requires all schools to have an in-house anti-bullying specialist.
The New Jersey law was passed in January 2011, following the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing a man and posted the video online.
"The 21st-century bullies have made our kids prisoners of their own existence," Buono said.
Maryland is one of 45 states that spell out the consequences for cyber-bullying in anti-bullying laws, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. When the Denver-based commission conducted the same survey in 2005, no state had a clearly defined cyber-bullying provision, she said.
Meanwhile, the White House on Friday endorsed a bill by U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. — co-sponsored by Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin — that calls on schools to do more to protect students against bullying and harassment.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act, which ties anti-bullying policies to federal funding, would require schools to have a code that prohibits the conduct, to do more to prevent it and to set new reporting standards.
Why kids cyber-bully
Gregory Fritz, a Brown University professor of psychiatry and human behavior, said cyber-bullying is receiving more attention because of the number of suicides directly related to it. He said two groups of young people are cyber-bullies: regular kids and deviant ones.
Children and teens, especially those in middle school and ninth grade, seek acceptance in peer groups with rules that can be cruel or arbitrary, said Fritz, who also is academic director at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island. Young people will try to reduce their own insecurity at the expense of others.
The age group is also prone to being impulsive and thinking in extremes, two traits that perpetuate cyber-bullying, Fritz said. With a click of a mouse, a teen can send a hurtful message without having thought twice, he said.
Anger and other Maryvale students attended a multi-school diversity conference last week on cyber-bullying, depression, drug awareness, gender stereotypes and disabilities.
It is one of several planned for the Baltimore region, including a forum to be scheduled in early May by Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball.
Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, will be the keynote speaker Thursday at an anti-bullying seminar hosted by Howard County schools and the local PTA.
Hinduja said about 20 percent of children and teens are victims of cyber-bullying, although the number varies from one study to the next. Another 20 percent are offenders, he said.
"I need parents to be as involved in their kids' online lives as they are in their off-line lives," said Hinduja, who is also a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University. "They need to know technology is here to stay."
Suicide is a rare outcome of cyber-bullying, Hinduja added.
Hinduja said parents of bullying victims should not take away a child's cell phone or computer privileges, because that is a punishment that will discourage the child from telling parents about harassment.
Parents of bullies should try to cultivate empathy by teaching their children to understand the impact that unkind words or harassing messages might have. If the behavior continues, the bully's parents need to make sure there are consequences, he said.
Many children and teens have been both victim and bully, Hinduja said.
The solution to the problem lies in shifting the way the community responds to cyber-bullying, not in school-based policies that strong-arm students, Hinduja said. Children and teens won't stop to read school manuals to research the consequences before jumping on line and sending a mean message. Children must make the change themselves, with support and guidance from the adults in their lives, Hinduja said.
But Dariann Malloy, a 17-year-old Maryvale junior from Owings Mills, said she thinks schools hold the key to protecting students from cyber-bullying.
"In these types of situations, the schools are really the only people that have the authority to try and stop it," she said. "Your parents can go and talk to the other person's parents, but that could go either way. It could make it a lot worse or it could make it better, but chances are it will get a lot worse, because you're having your parents go and fight your battles for you."
Chuck Buckler of the Maryland State Department of Education said curbing online harassment will take the efforts of schools, parents and the youth.
More collaboration is needed between educators, law enforcement, juvenile services and bystanders, who have a role in prevention and intervention, said Buckler, branch chief of student services and alternative programs.
State law governs cyber-bullying that occurs on school property, at a school event, on the bus, or if it interferes with a student's education, performance or physical or psychological well-being.
The General Assembly passed the legislation in 2008, requiring the state's 24 local districts to adopt the state standards on cyber-bullying as a guidepost for enforcement. District-level policies were then reviewed by a state task force for approval.
State law requires school districts to report bullying incidents. In the 2010-2011 school year, the reported incidents of bullying, harassment and intimidation included 409 in Anne Arundel County, 541 in Baltimore City, 510 in Baltimore County, 314 in Carroll, 54 in Harford, and 300 in Howard.
The district's consequences are tied to the schools' code of conduct for students. Discipline depends on the severity of the incident and whether it is a repeated action, Buckler said.
A child could be enrolled in counseling, be given detention, sent to school on Saturday, told to write a letter of apology, be referred to law enforcement or be suspended, he said.
Maryland put more provisions in place last year to require private schools, like public ones, to have anti-bullying policies. Del. Jeffrey Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat, sponsored the legislation.
Morgan Bell, a 15-year-old Maryvale sophomore from Towson, said any child or teen could be a victim of cyber-bullying.
"It's amazing that you can have a nurturing family and go to a good school and it still happens," Morgan said. "On the Internet, that all can disappear [for a victim]. ...
"Parents have to be understanding. Be attentive."
Morgan's classmate, 15-year-old Jade Jackson of Pikesville, said children and teens being bullied on-line need to tell an adult so the abuse doesn't get worse.
"You can see the storm about to come and you just want to stop it," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this report.